Soy Sauce: A Guide to One of the World’s Favorites

Hong Kong (CNN) – From Cantonese chow mein and Thai pad si ew to Japanese nigiri sushi, many of the dishes we know and love wouldn’t taste the same without soy sauce.

But not all bottles of this essential dark, flavorful condiment are created equal, with a wide variety of flavors and brands available—some of higher quality than others.

Although soy sauce is produced in factories around the world these days, most soy sauces on supermarket shelves are Chinese or Japanese in origin and consist primarily of soybeans, salt, water, and wheat flour (or whole wheat for some). ) to consist of.

One of Hong Kong’s oldest artisan soy sauce companies, Koon Chun, labeled blue and yellow, is often found among them.

Daniel Chan is the fourth generation co-owner of the Koon Chun Sauce Factory located in Yuen Long in the New Territories of Hong Kong. (The company is now managed by the Chan and Tam families.)

He says he didn’t even consider taking over the family business until he received a request from his grandfather about seven years ago.

“(Growing up) I knew my family had a soy sauce factory, but I was never told I’d take it. So while I didn’t know much about soy sauce,” Chan says.

Soy sauce is a major ingredient in countless noodle dishes.

Soy sauce is a major ingredient in countless noodle dishes.

bonchan/iStockphoto/Getty Images

A lot has changed since then. With a background in anthropology and a love for academic research, he immersed himself in the world of soy sauce and is now considered one of Hong Kong’s most knowledgeable experts.

In addition to preserving his family heritage, he wants to “preserve and pass on the unique heritage” of making soy sauce.

While there is much debate about the origins of soy sauce and who invented it, Chan, after working with professors and scholars to research the topic, says that this delicious liquid was not explicitly mentioned until about six centuries ago. was Chinese literature.

“And by the early 1900s soy sauce had become a staple for East Asian households,” says Chan.

“This was because soybeans were an important military resource in ancient times and most soybean production was limited in Manchuria (the northeastern part of China),” Chan explains enthusiastically.

Process

Danielle Chan, at left, is the fourth-generation co-owner of Kun Chun Sauce Factory.

Danielle Chan, at left, is the fourth-generation co-owner of Kun Chun Sauce Factory.

Maggie Hifu Wong

Each soy sauce maker has a slightly different recipe and cooking process, but most traditional versions take three to six months to make.

Soybeans are sorted, boiled and mixed with microbiological cultures and flour. They are then left to ferment in a temperature and humidity controlled room.

Established in 1926, Koon Chun still follows this traditional practice for the most part, producing soy sauce that is free of added chemicals and preservatives – but has introduced new techniques and techniques from around the world.

“Using a culture to aid in the fermentation process is something we learned from Japan,” Chan says.

“In the past, soy sauce makers could rely on natural weather and humidity to ferment the beans and hope that some natural mold culture would develop. This is why they made only one batch of soy sauce per year in the past. could make.

The fermented soybeans are then placed in a tank with a mixture of salt and water, exposed to the sun for two to three months as part of the second stage of the fermentation process.

After that, the fragrant, brown liquid is extracted and transferred to another tank to sunbathe for three months before being ready for bottling.

shake the bottle

While some factories fill empty soybean tanks with more water to extract more soy sauce, artisan producers avoid doing so to give maximum umami flavor to their soy sauce.

“You can imagine how little soy flavor will be left after the second extraction, right?” Chan says.

The remaining soybeans from the tanks will be used to make products such as hoisin sauce and soy paste.

Soy sauce extracted from the first round of fermentation is called “first extraction soy sauce” (tauh chow in Cantonese) or premium soy sauce.

Daniel Chan, owner of Koon Chun, says that quality soy sauce should produce a foam when stirred.

Daniel Chan, owner of Koon Chun, says that quality soy sauce should produce a foam when stirred.

Maggie Hifu Wong

But here things get difficult. Bottle labels often do not mention when soy sauce is the product of a second or third extraction process.

One way to tell is by looking at the ingredient list. Specifically, the level of soy content. Lower levels of soy mean that it is a product of subsequent extraction.

These soy sauces often rely on additives, artificial colors and chemicals to create soy flavor and darkening.

“Another way to measure how much real soybeans are in a soy sauce is by shaking the bottle,” Chan says. “Of course, do it only if the supermarket workers look away.”

If soy sauce forms a layer of dense foam that lasts for a few minutes, it means it has a substantial amount of soybeans, he says.

light vs dark

Different food scenarios call for different types of soy sauce.

If a Chinese recipe calls for soy sauce but does not specify which style, it is usually best to use a mild soy sauce (sang chow) – soy sauce is made by the process described above.

Seung wong is another type of light soy sauce.

Instead of using salt water, manufacturers add pre-produced soy sauce to fermented soybeans to double the flavor during the sunbathing process—hence it is sometimes called double fermentation soy sauce.

The process of making soy sauce is lengthy and requires several steps.

The process of making soy sauce is lengthy and requires several steps.

Maggie Hifu Wong

And sorry, light soy sauce is not interchangeable with dark soy sauce.

Despite the darker appearance and longer cooking time, Chinese dark soy sauce (Lau Chow) is not salty. In fact, thanks to additives like molasses, dark soy sauce tastes slightly sweeter.

It’s mostly used to “color” a dish—for example, it makes your stir-fried noodles look brown.

Similar to dark soy sauce, thick soy sauce (dik ju yaw) is more syrupy – it is light on soy sauce and heavy on molasses – and is primarily used to color roast meats.

Also, be aware that each brand may have its own way of describing the different types of light and dark soy sauce.

For example, Koon Chun refers to them as “thin soy sauce” and “black soy sauce”.

What about Japanese soy sauce?

Kikkoman is one of the most popular soy sauce brands in the world.

Kikkoman is one of the most popular soy sauce brands in the world.

Igor Golovniev/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

To make things more complicated, the flavor profiles of light and dark soy sauce do not apply to Japanese soy sauce, or shoyu. (The best-known brand of Japanese shoyu is Kikkoman, which was founded in 1917 and has production plants and offices around the world.)

In the Japanese soy sauce world, dark soy sauce (koikuchi) is saltier and more rich. This is the most common type of soy sauce in Japan.

Mild soy sauce (usukuchi) is mild and mild. Perfect for a light dish like tamagoyaki (a type of Japanese omelet).

“Japanese soy sauce is generally a good soy sauce because they use whole wheat in their soy sauce, which gives it a low alcohol level (about 1-3% ABV) and a sweet taste. So when consumed It’s easier on the tongue straight away,” says Chan.

When it comes to dipping sashimi and sushi, most people prefer to use tamarind shoyu and sashikomi shoyu, which have a stronger and thicker flavor.

Tamari resembles the most traditional type of shoyu in Japan but wheat is not used in the production process.

On the other hand, shashikomi is brewed after the first fermentation to remove the brine. It is sweeter than other types of Japanese soy sauce.

taste the variety

Ready to use?  Try mixing varieties of soy sauce to create your own signature flavor.

Ready to use? Try mixing varieties of soy sauce to create your own signature flavor.

Eleonora Grigorjeva / iStockphoto / Getty Images

Once you understand the basics, it’s time to step into the world of flavored soy sauce. These are made with additional ingredients like mushrooms and shrimp to boost the flavor of the product.

Meanwhile, soy sauces labeled for a special use – such as steamed fish soy sauce or clay pot rice soy sauce, are usually adjusted versions of dark or light soy sauce.

For those concerned about the high salt level of soy sauce, most popular brands produce low-sodium varieties.

Want to go deeper? Sample some of the soy sauce produced by other countries in the region, including Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Korea, all of which have their own distinct flavor profiles.

Chan also recommends experimenting with other ingredients like light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, and sugar to create your own unique flavor.

It’s also a good idea to buy small bottles of soy sauce to keep the flavor fresh. Or, pour your larger bottle of soy sauce into smaller bottles for daily use, while keeping the larger bottle in a cool sheltered place or fridge.

The Soy Sauce Maker’s Journey to the ‘Real’ Reunion

In 2018, Daniel Chan, owner of Kun Chun, visited Reunion Island to find out why the family sauce is so popular there.

In 2018, Daniel Chan, owner of Kun Chun, visited Reunion Island to find out why the family sauce is so popular there.

Coon Chun

Today, soy sauce can be found in home kitchens around the world, according to the California-based Soy Info Center, with the liquid shedding its image as an “exotic Asian ingredient” in America shortly after WWII.

About half of the soy sauce produced by Koon Chun is destined for North America and Europe.

But owner Chan says there are still times when the overseas popularity of his family’s products surprises him. He describes his 2018 trip to Réunion Island, an exotic French island in Africa with a population of about 800,000, as “surreal”.

“La Réunion has always been a big importer of our sauces – importing 30 to 40 containers of sauce each year. So I put my business trip on hold to find out that a distant volcanic island in Africa gave away so many of us. Why buy the sauce,” Chan says.

As he entered a local bakery, he saw two rice cookers on the counter, which contained some Chinese siu mai.

Chan learned that these pork dumplings (locally called bouchan), often dipped in soy sauce, are a staple snack at Reunion.

“And many of them (the people selling them) have been endorsing Kun Chun’s sauces for decades,” he says.

“I met a store owner who screamed excitedly when introducing herself. She said she never thought she’d meet the owner of Sauce.”

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